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Game Preview, Week Four: Liberty at Lehigh, 9/24/2011

When folks around the Lehigh Valley think about "Liberty", they don't usually think of the Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia that hosts one of the most rabid fan bases in all of FCS.

They're more likely to think of Liberty High School - home of the Hurricanes, and who count among their alumni an NFL Hall of Famer (LB Chuck Bednarik), a College Basketball Hall of Famer (former Lehigh basketball head coach Pete Carril), and a Hall Of Fame college basketball agent provocateur (former CBS Analyst Billy Packer).

But that's not to say that when the nationally-ranked FCS matchup is complete at Murray Goodman stadium this weekend  that folks around the Lehigh Valley will associate Liberty with a great football team.

This weekend's game will be broadcast locally on Service Electric 2, but also nationally on the Family Network, and online on ESPN3, thanks to the Flames Sports Network, allowing a national audience, once again, to see Lehigh's offense go full steam ahead against a Top 25 ranked opponent.

And - I'll just go ahead and put this out there right now - Lehigh Valley folks going to the game could also be witnessing a head-to-head battle of Walter Payton Award finalists. (more)

It's, of course, still very early in the race for the Walter Payton award, given to the most valuable player in all of FCS.

But before the season began, nobody I knew had senior QB Chris Lum on their Payton wachlist.

And now, it's hard to look at Chris' numbers at this early period and not at least consider the possibility.

As of this weekend, Lum is sitting at No. 2 nationally in terms of all-purpose offense, averaging 394 yards per game.

He sits above Liberty's quarterback - who is No. 7 nationally - and some other big names in the subdivision, too.

Like Eastern Washington QB Bo Levi Mitchell, who helped his Eagles win the FCS National Championship last year, and Northern Iowa QB Tirrell Rennie, whom Lum out-dueled last year in the UNI Dome in the first round of the playoffs.

Lum's QB rating?  173.97 - good enough for 4th in all of FCS.

Total passing yards?  1,131 - 2nd in the country.

Touchdown passes?  14.

There isn't another single Division I player in the country - FCS or FBS - with that many TD strikes.

It's not like he and the Lehigh "Full Steam Ahead" offense have done it against a bunch of patsy teams, either.

(I'll petition for it to be called the "Full Steam Ahead" offense, a nod to Lehigh's "Engineering" past.  Who's with me?)

Anyone who saw Princeton this past weekend knows that the Tigers will win some games this year.  Monmouth, Lehigh's Week One opponent, held Villanova last weekend to 9 points, displaying that they certainly have the potential to win the NEC title this year.  And the 41 point performance against New Hampshire, a perennial Top 25 team, speaks for itself.

And with Liberty coming to town, a perennial Top 25 team with a Payton Award candidate of their own, it's another chance for Lum and the Lehigh offense to show off their high-powered offense on a national level.

The Flames are coming of a "disappointing" last-second 27-24 loss to perennial CAA power James Madison, using the words of head coach Danny Rocco.

Lehigh fans have always been fans of an offense with a lot of steam.  And this weekend - at Lehigh's Homecoming, at that - at Murray Goodman stadium, they will potentially be seeing an awful lot of it - on both sides.

Fans of offense had best be showing up in Goodman this Saturday.

Game Notes
Lehigh's game notes are out - but, it seems, it'a almost more important to follow the Twitter feed of Express-Times reporter Michael LoRe instead (@michaellore).  Read that, and you learn that senior LB Devin Greene (stinger) and junior LB Billy Boyko (concussion) are healed and ready to roll for this week.  Their return gives a large shot of experience - and depth - to Lehigh's daunting linebacking unit.

But - more worrying for Lehigh - is the fact that junior RB Zach Barket, who separated his shoulder last week late in the Princeton game, was questionable for the game this weekend.  If so, sophomore RB Keith Sherman, one of the heroes against Princeton last weekend, will get the nod at tailback.

Weather Report
This weekend, the weather will be a situation to watch. With showers closing out the weekend so far, the current weather report for Saturday says: "Scattered thunderstorms possible", with a high in the low 70s.  With showers all week, it could make for a moist field - and, depending on the weather, could be even wetter.  It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.

A Word on Liberty
There are a lot of differences between Lehigh and Liberty, not least the fact that many of the activites I engaged in first semester freshman year may be grounds for expulsion at the (extremely) conservative campus that is Liberty.

Another big difference, though, is the intensity of the support of their Flames sports teams.

Most times, too many Lehigh students can't seem to be bothered by showing up at athletic contests, even football games.  (And when they do show up, many end up rolling in late in the first quarter - and rolling out midway through the third.)

Liberty students, on the other hand, do not leave early.  They have one of the most rabid fan bases in all of the FCS.

For example, it's not often that an institution of higher learning has a student booster club that boasts more than 700 members. The "Student Flames Club" - which, incidentally, has a corporate sponsorship - provides nearly 1,000 fans per home game, and many away games. Many wear red body paint. Many also say stuff you might not expect from a school that outlaws sexual promiscuity.

Watch a Liberty game on the Family network (part of the Flames Sports Network), and you'll see oceans of fans. Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia averaged more than 14,000 fans per game in 2010.

That's nearly double the "intimate gathering" for the Lehigh/New Hampshire game - a game that didn't top 8,000 fans on a beautiful, sunny day.

Recently, Liberty expanded Williams stadium to a capacity of 19,200 - including luxury boxes.

When Liberty travelled to Lafayette a few years ago, a marching band of over 100 members traveled with the Flames, adding to the incredible support. It also made for a "big-time" atmosphere at Fisher Field, where the visiting side filled the away stands.  (Not as big time as when Lehigh comes to town - but close.  That says a lot.)

Might Lehigh be outdrawn at home by the intense, amazing road support of the Flames?  Might the Mountain Hawks be playing an away game - at home - on Homecoming?

It may actually happen.

LFN's Drink of the Week
This week, I had a dilemma.  Normally, I advocate a "Drink of the Week" during tailgating.  To this point, it's always been an alcoholic drink - and some of which, it must be said, can put a person under the table pretty quickly.  But considering Liberty's strict alcohol policy - where a beer makes a Liberty student subject to potential suspension - is it wise to do so?

I decided not.  So - for this weekend - the official LFN drink for this week's tailgates will be an O'Doul's - a "premium, non-alcoholic beer" that will be safe for everyone to carry - Liberty students, as well as designated drivers, alike.

(Besides, you can always finish the O'Doul's - and pour in some Lord Chesterfield when you're done.  Did I just say that?)

(Seriously, though, I implore you to please drink responsibly when tailgating.  I don't mind folks enjoying a few drinks - but for Heaven's sakes don't get behind the wheel of a car afterwards.  Unless they're really O'Doul's.)

Breaking Down Liberty
Worringly for Lehigh, Liberty returns its best offensive weapon the last two years - and possibly the most talented offensive player that the Mountain Hawks may be going against during the 2011 regular season.  And, as promised, we will be seeing a player that is a well-established candidate for the Payton award as well.

Senior QB Mike Brown is a do-everything, athletic quarterback. His trophy case speaks for itself - two-time Big South offensive player of the year, and a preseason player of the year mention in 2011. His 2010 stats are impressive at any level: 223-for-351 passing, 2,956 passing yards, and 23 TDs passing. He was ranked 7th nationally in 2010 with a 149.6 passer efficiency rating, and in addition was 8th in passing yards per game (268.73).

Brown also led the Flames in rushing gaining 854 yards, while scoring 9 TDs rushing as well. When he goes back to pass you don't know if the speedster will be passing the ball, or tucking and running - making him an extremely dangerous weapon in Rocco's multiple-spread offense.  Watching the highlights against James Madison last weekend, you could see some of the well-designed bootlegs, where he'd appear to run left, then tuck and run right for a big gain.  Lehigh's defense will need to be keying on these types of misdirection a lot this Saturday.

Equally as worrying for the Mountain Hawks, a significant number of Brown's targets are also returning in 2011.

Oddly, Brown is also the leading rusher for the Flames - by a longshot.  Junior RB SirChauncey Holloway only has 47 yard rushing on the entire year, while catching only 4 passes out the backfield.  It's probably not right to see him as only a speed, pass-catching option out of the backfield in the Flames' spread attack, but that's how he's been used thus far.

Senior WR Chris Summers (1,081 yards, 15 TDs), junior WR Pat Kelly (635 yards, 4 TDs), and senior WR B.J. Hayes (546 yards, 1 TD) - Brown's top three targets last year - are really talented receivers.

The 6'5 Summers, a legitimate NFL prospect, was double-teamed a lot against James Madison, which opened up a lot of chances for the shorter Hayes, more of a possession receiver, underneath.  He nabbed 9 catches for 158 yards last week - illustrating the perils of the strategy of double-teaming Summers every play.

The presumed return of the 6'3, 200 lb Kelly this week - who didn't start against James Madison - will potentially give the Flames an even bigger boost as well in the receiving corps, giving the dangerous Brown yet another tall, athletic receiving option.

Senior WR Ervin Gardner filled in for Kelly last week, and nabbed 3 catches for 27 yards, and senior TE Tommy Shaver (2 catches, 36 yards) offer two more targets in Rocco's spread-the-wealth offense, not allowing a defense to key on any one target.

Liberty started 2011 with an almost brand-new offensive line, anchored by 6'4, 280 lb junior OT Malcolm Boyd.  Their "O" line has done a great job in opening holes for Brown, and giving him protection, but it's this matchup with Lehigh's front seven that really bears watching this Saturday.  Potentially, the game could be won or lost in this trench.

Defensively, Liberty runs a very similar 3-4 to what Lehigh runs, one of the hallmarks of a Danny Rocco-led team along with minimizing turnovers and minimizing penalties. Rocco is a notorious perfectionist in this area, giving his team a hard time for even singular penalties during games - and he'll have rode them hard this week on this score, after giving up an uncharacteristic 11 penalties against James Madison.  "I've never had a team give up that many penalties in a game since I've been here," Rocco said in his pregame press conference this week.

Key to a great 3-4 defense is a great nose guard, and with 385 lb senior NG Asa Chapman - who was, as you probably know, reinstated this week in time for the Lehigh game - they have one of the best in the Big South. (And, no, that's not a typo - he really is 385 lbs.) He has to be considered an elite run-stopper at the FCS level - but Rocco himself noted that he'll probably only suit up for about 15-20 plays this Saturday.  In his place, junior NG Greg Shuster (12 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) will be starting in his place, with speed-rusher sophomore DE Paco Varol (16 tackles, 2 tackles for loss) next to him.

Liberty's gang-tackling linebacking unit, basically retooled from last year, with freshman LB Nick Sigmon (18 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) emerging early as a power inside, and junior LB Brent Vinson (17 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) as a sack artist outside.  It's a very young unit, though they did a good job in holding James Madison last weekend to 27 points.

Senior CB KaJuan Lee (12 tackles, 1 pass breakup) and senior SS Brandon Robinson (19 tackles) are effective names in the secondary, while junior CB Kevin Fogg (18 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 INTs) has emerged as a solid corner for the Flames as well.  This looks like a solid, experienced unit.

Special Teams
Danny Roccos' special teams have a tendency to be, well, special. Senior P Mike Larsson (43.0 yards per punt), is a weapon in and of himself, and Fogg's speed on kickoffs is an area of great concern for Lehigh - given that the Mountain Hawks have given up a kick return for touchdown in two straight games.  Aside from Fogg (408 yards in returns), junior KR Korey Davis (119 yards) and senior WR B.J. hayes offer a series of nightmares for Lehigh special teams coach R.J. Ryan on special teams.

Senior PK Matt Bevins, who was hurt in last week's game versus James Madison, will likely be unavailable this week, but freshman PK Alex Kacere filled in admirably for Bevins and will take over placekicking duties this week.  It's safe to say there will be no dropoff.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Special Teams Needs to Own This Game.  Lehigh's special teams foibles the last few weeks have been disheartening - but these units need to own those mistakes from past weeks, and use them to make themselves better.  Better execution will be critical in this area, as Liberty's special teams can really be a difference-maker.
2. Brown and White on Brown.  Lehigh's blitzing offense will need to be coming at Brown at all angles to disrupt his game.  Keeping him from settling into a rhythm has to be Job One of senior LB Mike Groome and the defense.
3. Just Keep Mixing it Up.  A balanced attack is going to remain the best way to attack this very talented Liberty defense.  Lum and Spadola will get their yards, but a heavy dose of sophomore RB Keith Sherman, I feel, will be critical to keeping the offense rolling.

Fearless Prediction
It has all the potential for fireworks, despite a wet field.  It has the chance of being a shootout - which is what Lehigh, and Liberty fans, want.  And it seems like a great matchup for both teams to test their mettle - not only before their conference races, but nationally, too.

It's also going to be a showdown of quarterbacks.  Lum vs. Brown.  While you can look at the game in a lot of ways, it seems to keep coming back to that matchup.  Who will win the gunfight?

It's going to be awful close - but I think the Lum and Spadola express keep rolling.  And I think that it's Lehigh - at home at Homecoming, even if it might not feel that way at times - that will come out on top.

Lehigh 45, Liberty 38


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